Have you ever wanted a professional vocal recording chain instead of just using your interface preamps?
We get so many questions about recording vocals and different chains that we thought it might be a good idea to write it all down and share it with you! In this article, we will cover a fool-proof gear chain to get your raw tracks to a professional level. Before recording vocals, you need to make sure the singer is warmed up. Just like every other instrument, singers have to sound good before putting a microphone in front of them. After warming up, we can get started.
The microphone is arguably the most important part of the gear signal chain. It's the first component that the vocal hits and it determines what signal goes into the rest of the gear. The microphone you should use highly depends on your room quality. If you are in a well treated room, a condenser microphone like the Studio Projects C1 would be a great option. This will give you tons of detail and clarity. If you are not in a well treated room, however, condenser microphones will capture all of the reflections from your room and ruin your detailed, clean recording. In this case, it would be great to have a large diaphragm dynamic like the Shure SM7B. This kind of microphone will sound dull due to the lack of high end. But it won't get any of the nasty room reflections, keeping your tracks squeaky clean. The great thing is that these kind of microphones handle EQ very well, so you can boost the high end back in and it still sounds great. For more specific microphone recommendations, check out this article.
A preamp is what boosts the signal to line level. A signal has to be at line level (in most cases) before going into any other gear like a compressor or EQ. Signals that come right out of a microphone are very quiet and noisy which makes them unusable without a preamp. Many interfaces have built-in preamps, but tracking with an outboard preamp is a game-changer. My favorite vocal preamp is a Neve 1073, but $3000 isn't exactly within budget for most people. Luckily, there are brands that make similar preamps for a fraction of the price and they sound great! Our favorite being the WA73 from Warm Audio for only $599. The reason I like Neve-style preamps so much is for the way that they soften the transients and naturally compress the signals. This works great for vocals before hitting a compressor because the preamp can take some of the load off. They also have tons of clean gain to drive microphones like the Shure SM7B without issue.
Compression is one of the most important parts of a professional mix. If you don't understand compression yet, check out this article to learn more about it. When tracking vocals, I like to compress enough to where it levels out the signal while still keeping some dynamics for later on in the mix. Some of my favorite tracking compressors are the Empirical Labs Distressor and the famous 1176. Great budget-friendly alternatives to these are the DBX 160A and the Warm Audio WA76. In my experience with condenser microphones, the WA76 works amazing as a tracking compressor. A fast attack and the fastest release at a 4:1 ratio really helps a vocal shine above everything else. With dynamic microphones, I love a DBX 160A anywhere between 3:1 and 6:1. The auto attack/release of the unit makes it so easy to use. Just bring down the threshold until the compression gets to be too much, then back it off a bit. The 160A is great for a lot of uses, but especially smooth vocal leveling.
I personally don't think it's important to track with EQ. In fact, I would advise against it. Your mix is probably going to sound better if you can get great sounds by using solid mic placement, preamp gain and compression rather than worry about EQ during tracking. However, if you are confident in these things, then a great EQ to look at for tracking to add color and excitement can be built right into the preamp with Warm Audio's WA73-EQ. These EQ's are very musical and smooth and work great before or after a compressor.
This section is not about a certain piece of gear. It's just to note that whichever audio interface you are using will affect your signal by gain staging. If you don't have an audio interface with direct-to-converter line inputs, your signal will go through the built-in preamp. In order to "bypass" the preamp, you need to find your interface's unity gain setting. This will allow your crystal-clear signal to pass through virtually unaffected. I would highly recommend getting an interface with real line inputs like the Audient iD44. The balanced return input will allow you to go right to the converters. These are our top recommendations for vocal tracking gear in a semi-pro or project studio. However, there are lots of great options and no two singers sound exactly alike. If you need help finding the right signal chain for your style and budget, give us a call at 855-269-0474 or stop in our store in Downtown Appleton! Be sure to check out our other articles here.